Could the Voice referendum process have benefitted from an Irish-style Citizens’ Assembly?

The divisions surrounding the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament had as much to do with referendum process as anything else. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters missed a golden opportunity earlier this year when, in proposing a Bill to reform the referendum process, it ignored the advice of several prominent political scientists to convene a Citizens’ Assembly.

The Irish regard the use of these Assemblies as a way of resolving difficult political issues. In June this year, I visited Dublin along with several others to observe their sixth Assembly — this time on drug use. Previously, in 2018, many thought the Irish could never decriminalise abortion in their deeply religious country. However, following the recommendations of an Assembly, they voted to do so.

The Irish have developed a process by placing citizens centre stage, and thus are able to defuse the adversarial nature of politics-as-usual. The late Australian political scientist, Ian Marsh, said: “Political incentives undercut bipartisanship. We need a formal political structure to create a public conversation, but the system lacks this.” Ireland has this structure now, and other countries are following suit. Canada, Germany, the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and Belgium are all exploring the same core idea: the bona fide involvement of people in democracy.

In Australia we default to “expert panels” instead — such as Royal Commissions and select Committees. When it comes to specific referenda questions, there’s the Constitutional Convention approach, as we had for the Republic vote twenty-four years ago. The Voice may have benefited from such a Convention this time around, but that process still risks getting hijacked by partisan interests, as happened in 1999.

Consider how radical the role of a legal jury is sitting alongside the professionalism of the Courts. Nicholas Gruen has made the case in the following terms:

There are no inducements of any worldly kind — including career inducements — on offer to influence jurors. The citizens remain untouched by Teflon-coated principles that travel within more rigid bureaucratic structures — principles such as the need for decisions to be “accountable”, “transparent”, and “merit-based”. Jurors are not chosen on merit; their conduct is not transparent, and they’re accountable only to themselves.

Unsupervised by their putative betters, the evidence is that jurors rise to the occasion. They’ve retained their communities’ trust, even in the face of disputed judgements. In law, juries make excellent partners to officialdom, marrying the life world and naïve good intentions of everyday people to the careerism and professionalism of the Judiciary.

There are several arguments supporting the proposition that the Legislature would benefit similarly — not least of which is the quality of representation. When it comes to the Voice, Canberra demonstrated that it was out of step with the rest of the country. The average of the “Yes” vote of the three ACT federal electorates was 64 per cent, compared to the national average of 39 per cent. Moreover, MPs as a whole don’t reflect the population at large, whether in terms of gender, education, or ethnicity.

One might rightly lament that that our existing democratic structures are already cumbersome enough, and that we don’t need another “democratic body”. Notwithstanding, as the former Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, said in a recent speech:

We’ve got to end the merry-go-round of ruling things in — and ruling things out — which we’ve been on for over a decade, where we cannot get traction on important reforms.

Is it at all possible to have a sensible conversation about political reform in Australia? The failure of the Voice referendum has likely pushed back the prospect of any further referendum for many years. What does political reform even mean, and who’s having that conversation? Does political reform mean addressing policy areas such as immigration, housing affordability, the NDIS, and/or tax, or does it mean focusing on structural issues such a federal-state relations, section 44 of the Constitution, and/or the Republic?

In order to discuss various matters, in 2012 the Irish Parliament convened a Citizens’ Convention which then led to a series of Citizens’ Assemblies on specific topics, several of which became forerunners to successful referenda. The first Convention was made up of 100 members, 66 chosen by-lot from the Irish population, and the balance MPs. The subsequent Assemblies had 99 members all chosen by-lot, with an independent Chair appointed by the government. These Assemblies didn’t indulge in point-scoring but, instead, interrogated expert knowledge, lived and acquired, and shared their deliberations and judgement with the broader community, live-streamed months before the referendum vote.

Surprisingly, Australia was, until recently, a leader in citizen juries, having undertaken more than any other country, except Germany. But the political firmament hasn’t changed. To be fair, politics is much the same the world over. Most people still equate robust debate with political one-upmanship. The unseemly debate that bogged down the referendum didn’t need to happen. A patently better approach would’ve been to convene a Citizens’ Assembly to deliberate on the question — to act as the focus of a national conversation, rather than the slanging match that is Canberra.

Last month, John Burnheim, the respected Australian philosopher and early champion of citizen juries, passed away. John was most concerned with moving “from looking at particular issues as weapons in a struggle for power, to judging them on their merits”. As he writes:

Politicians are driven by polling and tie themselves in knots attempting to put an attractive spin on the policies they advocate, while their opponents attempt to vilify them. Public discussion is too often dominated by such adventitious factors. The results of answers to poll questions at best reflect what people see as particularly salient, not some balanced and informed discussion of the question. What we lack is a sound process of discussion and decision that is directed by concern about specific problems, enlightening public opinion about them, attempting to get beyond uncritical assumptions and ideologies.

John would have concurred with the American political scientist Robert Dahl, who once wrote: “Democracy is a bit chancy, but its chances depend on what we do ourselves.”

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is the founder and director of the newDemocracy Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation focused on political reform.

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